Tag Archives: plot

Bad First Drafts-Not Just for Beginners

In her classic craft of fiction book, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott devoted an entire chapter to bad first drafts. She used a more colorful term, but her overriding message was almost all first drafts are bad. This reminded me of a quote I came across on Karen Miller’s blog from Terry Pratchett that was so on target I wrote it down: “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.”

Whether new or experienced, most writers find the first draft a daunting task. Writers are still discovering their story and yet they expect too much from the first draft. When the story isn’t flowing the way it should, writers get discouraged. Experienced writers work through this, but novice writers should mind Anne Lamott’s advice. The truth is first drafts don’t have to be great, or even good. First drafts just have to be finished. Even if the writer believes his first draft is the worst piece of fiction ever written, there’s a story somewhere amid those 80,000 words. There are characters waiting to be filled out and completed. The writer’s job is to find the story and the characters, polish them and refine them.

The first draft is easier when the writer approaches it with an uninhibited mindset. As Lamott put it, “The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later.”

Like many writers, I constantly fight the urge to edit my first draft. I’m one of those writers who has to read what he wrote in the previous session before continuing with the first draft. This does two things: it gets me into the flow of the story and I also discover some glaring error that I correct. However, we must recognize that too much editing and obsessing over scenes already written can derail the writer.

Here’s another quote from Lamott that I should tape to my laptop: “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something—anything—down on paper.”

When you finish your first draft, put it aside for at least four weeks. When you return to it, some of the questions to ask are:

  • What is the essence of the story? Is the premise fully developed? Is the theme evident?
  • What is the main character’s strongest trait? Biggest weakness? Is it evident to the reader? Does the main character grow or change?
  • What is the central conflict in the story and has the writer maximized it to its full potential?
  • Is there enough tension throughout to sustain interest in the story?
  • What is the best scene? What is the worst scene? Can it be cut?
  • Who is the weakest character? Can this character be cut without harming the story?

Here are some other perspectives on first drafts:

Karen Miller

Harriet Smart

Learn to Write Fiction

Writer Unboxed-Anne Greenwood Brown

Write to Done

Writer’s Digest

What’s your view on first drafts? Do you labor over them or rush to get them done?

 

 

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Lessons from NaNoWriMo

My first National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo) is in the books. In case you don’t know what Nanowrimo is, it’s a contest where the goal is to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days, starting on November 1. The idea is to strive for quantity, not quality. I uploaded the first draft of my novel, Bonus Baby, on November 29. It weighed in at 53,083 words. Nanowrimo teaches lots of lessons for first-timers. Here are some:

  • Plan ahead. Start with a well-developed plot that has the potential for numerous scenes and dramatic developments. Keep in mind the number of scenes it will take to reach 50,000 words. The average daily word count required is 1,667 words. If your scenes tend to run between 1,500 and 2,000 words, you will need to develop between 25 and 30 scenes to attain the magic number.
  • Be flexible. Since quantity is the goal, feel free to experiment. Write a scene from different points of view. If you want to go off on a tangent, do it. Deadlines force the writer to find creative solutions to plot problems. You may end up inventing a new subplot or a new character. That’s okay. Make mid-course adjustments. You don’t have to stop and think about it. For me, being flexible also meant finding a way to write when our state got slammed by a freak October snow storm that resulted in the loss of power for nine days. I wrote by hand. I took my laptop to Starbucks. I wrote in the morning, which I had never done.
  • Keep moving forward. This one is really important. You cannot afford to spend time working over the same scene or trying to come up with just the right word or phrase. Perfect is the enemy of the good. If a scene isn’t everything you want, you need to move on.
  • Get to the finish line. Complete your story, even if it’s only 20,000 words. That sense of accomplishment is worth the effort.
  • Reach out to other Nanowrimo’ers in your region. I met a lot of great people and learned a lot by attending writing sessions, participating in online forums, and it’s comforting to know you are not alone.
  • Remember at all times: it’s a first draft. It’s not a Pulitzer Prize or National Book Award winner. You can always go back to it later and fix the problems.

Above all, I found that Nanowrimo teaches discipline and good work habits. It’s easy to blow off your work-in-progress when you come to a roadblock or you just don’t feel like writing. Nanowrimo teaches you the daily writing habit. Although I’m a believer in daily word counts, I tend to write in creative bursts. I may not write for five days and then knock out 7,000 words on the weekend.

Would I do it again? Absolutely. Now I need to go somewhere quiet and conjure up a plot for next year’s contest.

Have you ever done National Novel Writing Month? How did you find your experience? What did you learn?

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The Breakthrough Moment

It was one of those special moments that make it all worthwhile. I was working on my NaNoWriMo novel a couple of weeks ago. My story was far along, headed toward its climax, but I only had 20,000 words written. I had to get to 50,000 words. That’s the deal: a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. I was stuck. I did what I always do when facing such a dilemma. I took a step back. I got away from my laptop. I did some intensive brainstorming.

What else could happen to jump-start the story? A new subplot? Add a new character? The story needed something else to happen, but I wasn’t sure what that was. Meanwhile, the clock was ticking. Did the story need more action? Yes, that was it. How about another murder? Yes, that would work. After all, I was writing a murder-mystery and the first murder occurred way back in Chapter 1.

So the second murder was the kernel, but it couldn’t just be a gratuitous killing. There had to be a link between the second murder and the first one. This got my mind going. What was the connection? Ah, the same person committed both murders and both times for the same reason. So what was the reason? Once I figured that part out, I decided I needed to write the ending first. I guessed it would gain for me about 3,000 words. As of today, the ending scene has turned into several scenes and has clocked in at more than 7,000 words.

Once I developed the basic sequence of the “whodunit” part, I went back to the point where I got stuck and started filling in scenes. The milestones fell quickly: 25,000 words, 30,000, 35,000, 40,000, etc.

I reached 50,000 words on Friday, November 25, but I needed to keep going. The story wasn’t done yet. I’m at nearly 52,000 words today.

What’s the lesson? Let’s look at what I did when I got stuck:

  • Take a step back.
  • Get away from my work space.
  • Do some intensive brainstorming.
  • Consider all the possibilities.
  • Identify the best solution to breathe life into the story.
  • Develop the structure girding this new plotline.
  • Work on the ending first.

In his excellent book, Writing the Breakout Novel, agent Donald Maass wrote about how to brainstorm a “breakout premise.” His advice was to “steer away from the obvious, seek inherent conflict, find gut emotional appeal, and ask, ‘What if…'” That’s great advice for any writer.

It doesn’t happen every day, but that breakthrough moment was magical. I felt giddy. Writers suffer a lot of angst and loneliness. Breakthrough moments make it all worthwhile.

Have you experienced a breakthrough moment in your work in progress or earlier works? What was it? What did you do to make it happen? 

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Perfect Is the Enemy of the Good

There is an old expression in politics: “Perfect is the enemy of the good.” it means politicians must be willing to compromise to get legislation passed. They cannot strive for perfection. They must be willing to settle for that which does the most good for the greatest number of people.

That adage also applies to NaNoWriMo. Speed is king. Every second one sits and tries to think of just the right word or phrase, the clock is ticking. Writers who face a 30-day deadline to produce a 50,000-word novel simply don’t have the time to strive for perfection.

That’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned after Day 6 of NaNoWriMo. There were times when I got stuck during the middle of a scene. What I might normally do if the deadline was not looming would be to walk away from my work in progress for a day and ruminate over plot possibilities or how to best maximize the power of the scene. That is not an option in the throes of NaNoWriMo.

Another lesson is that one must carefully weigh whether to go down a road one has discovered during the writing process. One of the most wonderful aspects of writing a novel are those little surprises that come up. Sometimes it is an angle one had not considered. Other times one might think of a scene out of the blue that fits perfectly. With a tight deadline one must decide whether to pursue these surprises. Will the surprise take the story down a dead end? Is it worth the risk?

These are just some of the thorny dilemmas many writers no doubt face this month. That is what makes this so much fun. One cannot go for the perfect story. It’s just got to be good. At the end of Day 6 I’m at 7,500 words.

How is your NaNoWriMo experience going?

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Plot and Story: What’s the Difference?

When I started writing fiction, I used the terms “plot” and “story” interchangeably. I later learned there are big differences between plot and story. Recently, Writer’s Digest magazine brought together three story masters to discuss story structure. James Scott Bell, Donald Maass and Christopher Vogler shed light on the differences between plot and story.

Bell, the best-selling suspense writer, said it well. “Plot is the arrangement of story incidents. It’s a simple concept, but within that one must then use all aspects of the craft to create freshness and originality,” Bell said.

He continued, “The reason plot and structure are so crucial is that this is how readers are wired to receive a story. To the extent you ignore them, you frustrate readers and reduce the reach of your book. For some that may be what they want to do. Experiment. It’s a free country, so no problem—just as long as you understand the consequences.”

Here’s what noted literary agent Donald Maass had to say: “Plot, to me, is shorthand for the sequence of external, observable events that comprise a story. It’s the things that happen. And unless things happen it’s hard to give a story impact.

“What many authors need are stronger events,” Maass said. “Most pull punches, underplay and basically wimp out. Strong story events feel big, surprise readers and evenshock them. There are ways to do that deliberately. One is magnifying events, both in their outward, observable sense and in their inner impact. For instance, you can work backward to make a certain event a protagonist’s worst fear. Better still, you can take something a protagonist must do and make it something that character has sworn *never* to do. Or you can work with an event’s consequences, finding unexpected damage to inflict or unlooked for gifts to give. There are lots of ways to make events strong. A string of strong events is what we call a great plot.”

Read the full interview here.

Think of a novel as a home under construction. The plot is the frame. The story is the finished house. Carrying the analogy one step further, the characters are the foundation. Stories are about people—flawed people who go on a journey and emerge on the other side fundamentally changed.

Stephen King admits he doesn’t plot his novels. In his book, On Writing, King shared his thoughts on plotting:

“I distrust plot for two reasons: because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible. It’s best that I be as clear about this as I can—I want you to understand that my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves. The job of the writer is to give them a place to grow…”

On Writing, by Stephen King, page 163

When I come up with an idea for a novel, I sit down and identify about a dozen major milestone events that will move the story forward. You could call this plotting. I agree with King to the extent that as I am writing a novel, I often discover ways of getting from Point A to Point B that I had not envisioned. I’ve also discovered that Point B isn’t the place I want to end up, and that’s okay too. That’s the “spontaneity of real creation” King spoke about.

Do you believe in plot or do you agree with Stephen King? How extensively do you plot your novels?

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